Bill McEwen

Legal medical marijuana in Fresno? It could finally happen

Medical marijuana proponents display their support at a Fresno City Council meeting June 22, 2017.
Medical marijuana proponents display their support at a Fresno City Council meeting June 22, 2017. The Fresno Bee file

When it comes to marijuana, Fresno always has taken the War on Drugs approach.

It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about medical marijuana or recreational marijuana, both of which are legal in California, our city’s leaders have exercised their legislative prerogative to say “Hell, no!”

But now there’s a crack in Fresno’s our-way-or-the-highway stand against medical marijuana, which received the OK from state voters via Proposition 215 way back in 1996.

Councilmen Clint Olivier and Luis Chavez are working with Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and the city attorney to come up with a package of ordinances that would regulate the sale of medical marijuana at a limited number of dispensaries.

“Judging from the comments my colleagues made at the marijuana hearing (June 22), there is room to pass a medical marijuana ordinance in Fresno,” Olivier told me Friday.

Credit medical marijuana advocates and Olivier, a politician with a Libertarian streak, for finally opening the door to the possibility.

People fighting life-threatening and debilitating diseases have testified during council hearings to the pain relief provided by medical marijuana. Their impassioned pleas to make their “medicine” legal to buy in Fresno have prompted some council members, along with Brand, to reconsider the city’s policy.

Olivier, who served in the Marines, has become the flag-bearer for the charge to end Fresno’s marijuana prohibition. The reason? Prohibition doesn’t work, he says. In fact, he adds, it makes the situation worse.

“Human nature is human nature, and there’s nothing politicians can do about that – although they try all the time,” Olivier said. “Prohibition fosters a black market run by criminal gangs. It has been an employment guarantee for gangsters in Fresno.”

Chavez says that he is researching medical marijuana dispensary regulations in cities throughout California in hope of finding models that might work well for Fresno. But for any proposal to receive the blessing of Chavez and the mayor, stringent conditions must be met. Unlike Olivier, Brand and Chavez stand firm in their opposition to recreational marijuana, which was approved by state voters last year.

For example, they want buy-in from surrounding communities and from Fresno County that result in a regional regulation model.

“The mayor, before we do anything, wants to talk to the county,” City Hall spokesperson Mark Standriff said. “He wants to make sure we are not putting ourselves at cross purposes with the county.”

That said, it’s clear that Brand already has given the issue considerable thought.

“He is open to it,” Standriff said, “because the case for medical marijuana is different than the case for recreational marijuana. But any medical marijuana law must be written so that dispensaries are not near schools and parks, the city has to be able to recover the costs of enforcement, and the law must be subject to 12-month review.”

Chavez’s conditions include a ban on cash transactions – debit or credit cards only – and cameras at the dispensaries that can be monitored in real time by police.

You can be sure that deciding how many dispensaries to license and where to allow them will be a big part of the debate.

“Do we do one per council district or one per policing district?” Olivier said. “Or do we place them in industrial areas? I know that the council members representing south Fresno don’t want them all in their their end.”

Yet to weigh in on whether to end the medical marijuana dispensary ban is Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who has played a prominent role in shaping the city’s campaign against cannabis. He testified at the meeting last month in which the council voted to ban marijuana on a 4-3 vote.

Cities that have allowed the legal sale of pot have reported an increase in underage use, Dyer told the council, and dispensaries have been frequent burglary and robbery targets. Dyer also stated that today’s cannabis has significantly higher THC, the principle mind-altering ingredient in marijuana, which Dyer said can lead to greater psychoactive effects, reported The Bee’s Rory Appleton.

In a text statement Friday, Dyer said that he had not “had a chance” to discuss the proposal with Brand or City Attorney Doug Sloan. “Until I do, I believe it is premature for me to make any comments.”

I understand law enforcement’s reluctance to take on more potential problems, especially in a city that deals daily with the high costs to society of drug addiction and alcohol abuse. But marijuana is readily available in Fresno. People are buying it and smoking it – to relax, to get high and to relieve chronic pain.

As Appleton noted in his story, there are more than 40 services delivering marijuana in Fresno despite the city’s ban on those operations.

Allowing – and strictly regulating – a small number of medical marijuana dispensaries is a smart way for Fresno to test the waters of a new approach. Let’s find out what the impacts are and proceed from there.